City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 4, 2017

March 4th

Filed under: Birds, History, Mammals, Plants — canopus56 @ 8:36 pm

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – Part II

External Link to Image

Utah Digital Archives and Utah Historical Society. Early Photograph of City Creek Canyon Road by Harold Shipley.

1:30 p.m. Another day of bright sunshine. Winter is held back; pre-spring advances. Looking over my 2015 wildlife log for City Creek, I again see far fewer encounters in February 2017. In February 2015, I recorded 160 encounters, including many of the same characters seen this year: American Crow, Great Horned Owl, Black-billed Magpie, Mountain Chickadees, Black-Capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mule deer, Elk and Rock Squirrels. Others were absent in February 2017: Turkey Wild, Western Scrub Jay, immature Bald eagle, Canyon Wren, Cooper’s Hawk, Dusky Grouse, Moose, and Steller’s Jay.

In 1847, after the arrival of Mormon Euro-American colonists to the valley, they found a lush valley full of trees, grasses and other plant life. The initial party, after Brigham Young’s advance party of 78 wagons, consisted of 1,533 persons in 580 wagons and included 4,333 head of livestock and fowl (Bancroft, 267 at ftn. 38) and they traveled to the valley from July 4th, arriving on September 20th, 1847 (Bancroft, 283). The advance party built a fort in the form of a stockade consisting of 29 log-cabins (Bancroft, 277). It was located at the current Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City. During their first summer and through the following spring, these Mormon pioneers noted considerable plant and wildlife. In 1902, William C.A. Smoot, one of the eight then still living participants in the 1847 advance party recalled that,

“The valley was not covered with sagebrush, as some persons have assumed. It was all grass as tall as wheat and made fine grazing for cattle. Most of this has been trampled down since then, but small patches may still be seen up Parley’s canyon and in some parts of the City cemetery” (Salt Lake Telegram, July 3, 1902).

In the advance party, pioneer William Clayton reported at their last camp in Emigration Canyon that “[t]he soil looks indeed rich, black and a little sandy. The grass is about four feet high and very thick on the ground and well mixed with rushes”, a grass plant (Cottam, 1945, at 173). In the Emigration creek bottom, Clayton stated that, “[t]he grass on the creek grows from six to twelve feet high . . .” (id). At the bottom of Emigration Canyon, he reported a thicket of trees and brushes so dense that he was compelled to crawl through them on his hands and knees. Of the valley he stated that “[t]he grass grows high and thick on the ground and is well mixed with green rushes”(May, at 65). On July 21st, 1847, Pratt recorded that “A great variety of green grasses and very luxuriant covered the bottom for miles . . .” (Cottam 1947 at 11). Others reported walking through “[w]heat grass [growing] 6 or 7 feet high, many different kinds of grass . . . some being 10 or 12 feet high” (Honiker 1994 at 33, quoting Jackson).

In addition to reconnaissance party reports of abundant timber in the canyons, Brigham Young described how prior to channelling the bed of City Creek as it passed through the city, that the creek’s natural bed was thickly covered in willows and wild roses (Bancroft, 262, without citation to source). The Daughters of the Utah Pioneer’s monument to the lone cedar partially corroborates Young’s description of willows along City Creek’s channels. The DUP monument to the lone cedar begins, “Although willows grew along the banks of the streams a lone cedar tree . . .” (DUP). Further south in the valley, present day Draper was named “Willow Creek” by the colonists (Gottfredson, 18). Further south in the valley near present day Murray, another of the 1847 immigrants described the drainage from Big Cottonwood Canyon as, “alive with birds and small animals. There were many blackbirds, cat birds, morning doves . . . skunks, minks, badgers, muskrats, otters, foxes, and along the river a few beaver. A little farther up there were a few wolves” (Sillitoe at 34 quoting Murray Bicentennial History Book Committee).

A series of biological surveys conducted after the colonists’ arrival in 1847 also support that the pre-Euroamerican Salt Lake valley was a place of exceptional diversity, in particular bird diversity. Colonel Stansbury’s expedition of 1850 returned eleven plants to Washington (Welsh) and his report of 1852 included a botany appendix (Stansbury) by John Torrey that describes about 130 species. An early woman collector in the valley was Jane Carrington, who as a teenager collected two new species out of her total collection of 59 Utah plants (Welsh). But neither Stansbury’s narrative or or Carrington’s botanical lists give a good feel of the valley’s overall natural state beyond that Stansbury said he passed a grove of small oaks on entering the valley. Stansbury’s scientific aid, Lt. J. W. Gunnison noted that the valley was “perennial pasturage, but the hillsides furnish bunchgrass . . .” (Cottam 1947 at 11).

In contrast, Stansbury collected and returned thirty-one bird specimens to the Smithsonian Institution for later cataloguing by biologist Spencer F. Baird (Rawley, 53-55). Those birds gave an initial hint of the abundance and high diversity of bird life along the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Another early indication of the diversity of Utah’s early bird and mammalian wildlife were given in a July 1855 expedition by Jules Remy, whose 1861 “A Journey to the Great Salt Lake” catalogued 27 mammals and 34 birds, all familiar today (Rawley, 60-62). The 1859 U.S. War Department expedition of Colonel James H. Simpson similarly returned 37 birds to Professor Baird for cataloguing (Rawley, 67-68). But it is was the 1867-1869 survey expedition by U.S.G.S.’s Clarence King that finally revealed the true extent of the diversity of bird life on the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in and near Salt Lake Valley. Ornithologist Robert Ridgeway reported 92 bird species in the Salt Lake Valley and 116 birds species at Parley’s Park at the summit of Parley’s Canyon, about ten miles from City Creek Canyon (Rawley, 69-79).

In Grove Gilbert’s 1890 report on the geology of Lake Bonneville, he concluded with respect to the valleys and canyons surrounding the lake, including Salt Lake Valley and City Creek, that “In the virgin condition most lowland valleys and all upland valleys were covered by grass and other herbaceous vegetation” (Gilbert, Cottam 1947 at 12). This pre-Euro-American state of grasslands was confirmed by subsequent range experiments. In 1932, Pickford of the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station located 26 one to two acre plots on northern valley floors that were grazed or burned and compared them to 7 plots that were ungrazed, unburned plots that were taken as representative of virgin grassland (Pickford). He found that 26 percent of the area of virgin plots were covered in perennial grasses with little or no sagebrush or greasewood. Perennial grasses covered 1 percent of burned and grazed plots. In his Fig. 1, he displays a photograph of one of the virgin areas and this is the best representative image of what the Salt Lake Valley bottom looked like on the arrival of the Euro-American colonists. In 1945, University of Utah biologist Cottam located and compared parcels of land Red Butte that had been protected from grazing and compared them to Emigration Canyon that have been extensively overgrazed (Cottam, 1945). He found the density of grasses and shrubs in Red Butte to be twice that of Emigration.

Some hint of how densely the mouths of canyons were covered in thickets of trees can be seen in an early 1900s photograph of the Shipley photograph collection at the University of Utah Marriott Library digital archives. One photograph shows the early road constructed by Young and improved in the late 1890s by City prison labor. The narrow track bisects an impenetrable wall of green (J. Willard Marriott, Id. 459448). City Creek remained a refuge for trees and plants. A 1903 Salt Lake Mining Review article about the Burro Mine on Black Mountain notes that Black Mountain was much more heavily timbered than we see today. In 1918, City Water Commission C. Clarence Nelsen, in recalling his boyhood days in the City Creek, noted that “City Creek canyon and other watersheds of the city were well timbered” (Salt Lake Tribune, January 9th, 1918). Nelsen’s report of his boyhood described the state of the canyon in the 1870s, after it had been logged for almost twenty years.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 4th, 1852, he seeks shelter on the leeward side of a wood pile in order to enjoy the warm rays of the sun. He see lambkill shoots sticking above the snow. On March 4th, 1854, he sees shoots of pitcher plant and golden senecio. The ground is losing its snow cover. On March 4th, 1859, he admires a crow’s call.

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